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Gini Dietrich

PR Crisis for Skittles In Wake of Controversial Teen Shooting

By: Gini Dietrich | April 4, 2012 | 
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I’ve been watching a different kind of PR crisis unfold with great interest – that of Skittles.

Skittles, you say? Taste the fruity rainbow, Skittles?

Yes, Skittles.

Because of the symbolism of the candy (Trayvon Martin was carrying only Skittles and a drink when he was shot), college student governments are buying it in bulk and reselling it to raise money for his family.

The candy has been piled into makeshift memorials, crammed into the pockets of thousands of people who have shown up at rallies in his name, and sent to the Sanford Police Department to protest the lack of an arrest in the case.

Sales are soaring for Skittles maker, Wrigley. But its new level of fame is quickly becoming a PR crisis that is threatening to hurt the company, more than it helps.

I know, I know. Sales are up. Everyone is talking about them. So what’s the problem?

According to the New York Times, people are calling for donations and giving back to communities where “murder based on stereotypes is a reoccurring theme.”

On social media sites like Twitter, people are suggesting that Wrigley is profiting greatly from the tragedy and should donate money made since Trayvon’s death to the family or causes that would help with racial reconciliation or underprivileged communities. Some African-Americans are even asking people to stop buying Skittles until the company gets more involved in the case and donates money.

So, just like we discussed yesterday where Etch A Sketch took advantage of a Romney senior aide’s gaffe and is selling more toys, Wrigley now has the opposite problem. Trayvon had Skittles in his pocket when he was killed and protestors are using the candy as a symbol for his death.

Clearly going the route of capitalizing on this opportunity is not the right thing to do. Is donating some of the increased profits the right thing to do? Is staying silent and watching it all unfold the right thing to do?

As communication professionals, we’re trained throughout our careers to deal with things such as someone dying from eating your product or someone being killed on the job. But this one? This one isn’t a case study you find very often, nor is it a scenario you typically include in your crisis management plan.

This is a crisis where “I”m sorry” doesn’t work. It’s a crisis where people on the social networks are telling you how to run your company. And, if you don’t donate money, you come off as the big, capitalist company, which could hurt you in the long-run.

Seemingly the “right” thing to do is donate money, but I’m not sure that’s the answer either.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

209 comments
vikkiorlando
vikkiorlando

I think it's horrible that groups are calling for them to donate anything. They're running a business. They had nothing to do with the incident. Period. We all have had business successes, many based on the tragedy of others (Competitor goes bankrupt, etc.) Once again people feel the need to take their anger out on the wrong entity. Donate some of your own money if you support these organizations. Don't try to bully/guilt an innocent bystander in this.

jgombita
jgombita

@dconconi to be honest I don't see how these two things are related. (I don't remember hearing about the Skittles connection in Cdn. media.)

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

SUPER touchy. So many different issues at play here. Race. Politics. Ethics. It's like one giant hornet's next waiting to be kicked. What really makes this interesting is that Wrigley, just like Etch-A-Sketch, had nothing to do with the situation. 

 

The number one thing Wrigley has to do is to NOT seem like it is taking advantage of the situation. To that end, any donation with a loud announcement to ANY organization will come off as grandstanding. I personally like the idea of a donation to some kind of college scholarship foundation since that was in Trayvon's immediate plans; perhaps even working with the Martin family to establish a foundation in Trayvon's name. No matter what, Wrigley can't be the company to make the announcement. It has to be the beneficiary that takes the most spotlight for this. Accusations of greed or capitalizing on a tragedy could make dents in the company it would take a long time to recover from.

MattACook
MattACook

Working for a company that has grown thanks almost 100% to social media, I can say without a doubt, the right decision is to take some of the profits and do something good and charitable. Doesn't have to be a big hullabaloo, but make it visible to those who care.

 

Businesses today own only the quality of their products. Branding is in the hands of the masses. In the end, doing the "good thing" will lead to more customer good will, and possibly more sales. 

TheAaronWade
TheAaronWade

@Canadian88 wow super interesting! I hope someone does a case study on this and we can look at how it was handled! @elissapr @spinsucks

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

When this edition of Spin Sucks popped into my inbox I thought: that @ginidietrich - she does it again:brings to light a burgeoning issue and creates intelligent conversation around it.

There are some really great comments here.  Where most companies are called on the carpet for a transgression, Wrigley is hearing the cries of 'do good'.  I have no doubt they will...but I also hope it will be a sustainable legacy that supports the root of the issue vs a band-aid approach.

diannahuff
diannahuff

@ginidietrich re: Skittle. Is this your blog? Your social share bar keeps getting in the way of reading. It moves on the iPad.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@megmroberts It was a million years ago that I saw you

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

It's definitely a challenging situation @ginidietrich -- I've read through most of the comments here and I tend to agree with you in principle. The capitalist in me is a firm believer of Adam Smith's thinking that a socially responsible company focuses on earning money (because the rest has to occur for that to happen in the long run:  good products, value, service, etc.). 

 

Yet on the other hand, I think Wrigley's is in a position where doing nothing is going to cause more problems.  There's a ton of reporting on this incident and quite frankly, I don't think we have all the facts yet.  Even so, I think Wrigley's would do well to find an organization they can work with.  Something not directly related -- a big brother/big sister type organization -- is what I'm thinking, but there's probably a better choice too. More than simply throwing money at the problem, but encouraging employees to get involved.  Maybe the CEO adopts a non-profit -- something along those lines.

 

I'd also recommend being a "quiet professional" about it.  It's something you just do -- without a press release or a statement.  Over time the word will get out about what they are doing and will alleviate any short-term concerns.  

 

That said, Wrigley's is a large enough company, with such a legacy, I'm sure if we dug a little we'd find it's likely they probably already have some philanthropic programs.  Nearly every CEO I've ever known has a few, and they are indeed quiet about it.   Maybe that's a story that's coming as this controversy grows. 

lisavielee
lisavielee

@ginidietrich thanks for sharing Skittles PR story. Interesting to read comments, different POV

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

@karlgibson great comment, too. :)

karlgibson
karlgibson

.@AmyVernon .@KOttavio .@ginidietrich Thanks for the link on the 'PR Crisis for Skittles' debate. I was glad to add my comment!

karlgibson
karlgibson

    I think that most  people following this story are much more concerned with the public safety of our country's youth and whether the shooter in the Martin murder will be arrested. I can honestly say that between social media, my own news org I'm at, people on the street, comment boards- I have not heard one person ask 'What are the makers of Skittles going to do with this sales blitz!?'

 

    Whatever Wrigley does, it should be private and discussed with their counsel first. Like any corporation, they can fund any charitable initiatives, scholarships or programs that they choose if they choose to.

 

   Part of what made this such a huge global sadness is commonality: human beings of all races and ages like Skittles candy. Wrigley needn't politicize or kowtow to anyone right now, especially in the wake of such raw emotion and worldwide momentum. If Wrigley opts to use or earmark any portion of their surging non-forecast profits to *any* public works then they'll look amazing.  But for anyone to take a stand and demand that Wrigley earmark profits would be an insipid move.  The consumer has the choice whether to buy any product and I don't think Wrigley's profits are the crux of this case.

 

   As for the NYT snippet up there, as a former employee of the NYT Group, I'd say the assertion that "some African-Americans" are calling for a moratorium on Skittles sales is laughably overblown. "Some" - I'd like to know how many? I'm sure it's a miniscule number and shouldn't be used to obfuscate the human connection behind the tragedy of this unfolding case . Skittles didn't shoot an unarmed minor and on that we all can agree.

LeanneHeller
LeanneHeller

@myleftone now I want skittles. Curse you and your insidious ways.

dconconi
dconconi

@jgombita not related. Just also interesting.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

 @MattLaCasse I like the idea of a scholarship fund. I think this would be a good approach and gesture no matter what the case. And if done carefully, this could help keep the company from getting immersed in the controversial issues of politics, race and ethics while still honoring the increase in sales due to this tragedy. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @MattACook I agree doing the right thing seemingly is donating to the cause. But they also have to think about legal issues, where they can't comment on a murder case. So, if they do anything, they'll have to be very careful about when, how, and what they communicate, if at all.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@diannahuff It moves on the iPad? I'll find out why. Thanks for letting me know.

megmroberts
megmroberts

@ginidietrich I know. I would like to change this soon. I will try to kidnap @rachaelseda and make a reunion happen.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @Frank_Strong They have a pretty big CSR program. And I know they also donate product. Perhaps there is a combination of doing what you suggest with some of the things they already have in place. I'm very interested in what they do.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@lisavielee It's interesting that no one agrees in the comments. Imagine being in the board room!

karlgibson
karlgibson

@AmyVernon Thanks, Amy! Lived in Florida for three years in Florida as a teen (shudders). I wonder what the NRA is gonna do as a 'brand'!?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@karlgibson This made me LOL: 'What are the makers of Skittles going to do with this sales blitz!?'

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

@karlgibson yay! :) Insanity. Linsanity? Skinsanity?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @karlgibson You're very right. And I agree it's ridiculous this is even a topic of conversation. But I am fascinated by the turn of events that has pulled an innocent company into the conversation. As a communication pro, it's difficult to separate my personal feelings (which mirror what you've said) with what they should do professionally. 

myleftone
myleftone

@LeanneHeller BTW TweetDeck - I uses it. So I'll be twittering like a boss.

myleftone
myleftone

@LeanneHeller no no no no no you're just helping them capitalize - those greedy corporate bastids!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @JMattHicks Seems like you know someone who can figure out how to let you edit your comment! :)

 

Wrigley, too, does a lot of community service. A LOT. But someone brought up a really good point. He said they aren't making extra money or extra profits because what's on the shelf is what's on the shelf. Now, if they run out of product they can either make more candy or not. There are pros and cons to both, of course, but they've reported their projections for the year and, unless the stores run out and they make more candy, it won't affect their share price.

 

That said, it's a very interesting case study on how our customers now demand how we run our businesses. 

jgombita
jgombita

@dconconi think this issue is incredibly serious in regards to "legalized" racism; simply don't see a huge connection to Skittles/marketing.

AdamBritten
AdamBritten

 @ginidietrich This might be why they haven't done anything *yet.* Making a public comment now would through them even more into the spotlight of this case.

MattACook
MattACook

 @ginidietrich Absolutely correct. Sorry, it was late at night and I wrote that idea very quickly. Wrigley should definitely be careful to not make any statements on the murder case. But say, creating some sort of kids' program not directly related to the case. That could definitely help if the people clamoring for action take notice.

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

 @ginidietrich

 For better or for worse, when social media screams, corporations are brought to their knees. How do we advise our clients/internal people when to respond and when not to (given the severity of the situation, of course)? As the corus of voices continues to grown in this medium, crisis comms will need to get better at addressing this.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@megmroberts @rachaelseda OMG! That would be AWESOME!!!

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

@karlgibson I did 6 years in SFla. But as a journo, which is far more fun. :)

karlgibson
karlgibson

@ginidietrich Ha! Well we know someone will probably ask sooner or later. I really enjoyed your piece & participating today.

karlgibson
karlgibson

 @ginidietrich I agree with you also and I think it's definitely something that anyone in a public profession or working for a corporation has to consider. It's a huge 'what would you do?' question. I read all of the comments here and there's so much to draw on. I tried to think of other unplanned PR blitzes of the past (i.e. Three Mile Island coinciding with Columbia Pictures' "The China Syndrome" in 1979).. Amazing to think of the solidarity and emotion youth have with Skittles for now beyond anything related to candy.

jgombita
jgombita

@dconconi the difference is that the "bad thing" originated on a Belvedere vodka "property." Skittles is part of an effect, NOT the cause.

dconconi
dconconi

@jgombita agreed. But look at the pressure being applied to Skittles marketing...

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

 @ginidietrich  @rachaelseda I'm not married to the idea that they HAVE to do something. However, getting increased sales because someone made a political gaffe is a little different than increased sales because a teenager got shot. I know they didn't ask for this, and did nothing to deserve it, but some small gesture certainly doesn't hurt them and turns a needless spotlight from them back to the community.

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

 @ElissaFreeman  @ginidietrich Much like it always has been, you can't let the mob dictate what the right thing is to do. All you can do is to ensure you are doing the morally, ethically, and correct thing. Just because someone is loud doesn't mean they're right. 

 

That said, I do think Wrigley CAN make a donation and not come off looking like it is capitalizing on the publicity it has been receiving.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@lisagerber @ginidietrich @megmroberts I know I have a few of them from time to time ;)

lisagerber
lisagerber

@rachaelseda @ginidietrich @megmroberts OUTSTANDING idea.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@ginidietrich @megmroberts We're going to make it happen Meg. Lets plan a weekend! cc: @lisagerber

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@ginidietrich @megmroberts YES! Seriously a weekend Chitown trip I've been warning @lisagerber that I'm going to crash her apartment!

karlgibson
karlgibson

@ginidietrich Thank you. I'll be reading and following your work!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@karlgibson I really enjoyed your comments. We should find a topic we disagree on and debate it via a blog post. I like your brain.

myleftone
myleftone

@LeanneHeller M&Ms are safer tho. They make friends!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] is in the early stages of a PR crisis of a very unique nature. Both the New York Times and the blog Spin Sucks have provided coverage on the issue. According to the New York Times, “Trayvon Martin, the [...]

  2. [...] read with interest Gini Dietrich’s post yesterday about how Skittles is finding themselves in a bit of a PR crisis because of the Trayvon Martin case. And through no fault of their own. There is a great discussion [...]

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  6. […] of social injustice.  Yet, the call for Mars, Inc. to donate proceeds from accelerated sales of Skittles spurred by the Trayvon Martin case falls into the “this is what we think you should do so do it” […]